Based on a popular sci-fi / western / horror / fantasy series by uber-author Stephen King, the film The Dark Tower is as much of a sprawling incoherent mess as you’d expect with a series that doesn’t neatly fit into a single category. It’s also good entertainment and worth watching, with lots of Easter eggs referencing other King properties, some hidden, some on flashing neon signs.
King treads familiar ground with the basic story: Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is trying to hold it together after his firefighter father dies in a rescue attempt. Sharing an apartment with his mom Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) and step-father, he’s troubled by nightmarish visions every time he lays down to sleep.
In his visions – that he frantically illustrates upon waking – he sees a horrific world where children are used to fuel a weapon that’s attacking The Dark Tower. The Tower is what exists in the center of the universe and holds the evil forces at bay from the many worlds within.
His visions also include seeing The Gunslinger (Idris Elba) and the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), locked in an eternal duel even as the Man in Black also seeks to destroy the tower and let the darkness into the universe. “Keystone” Earth is one of the many planets and we’d suffer if the Tower fell too, as becomes obvious in the story.
Jake’s visions reveal a mysterious abandoned house in NYC that he finds and learns is a gateway to… somewhere. He leaps through and finds himself on “Mid-world” where he’s shocked to find the real life Gunslinger, who quickly adopts him as a surrogate son. The Man in Black (also called Walter O’Dim) also finds that Jake has arrived through his awareness of Jake’s extraordinary psychic “shine” ability.
The film then bounces between a Firefly-esque old West town with not-quite-steampunk technology and psychics, Walter’s evil lair, and contemporary New York City, in a rather dizzying fashion.
There’s a good story here – King is a brilliant storyteller – but you’re going to have to be a dedicated fan to pull it out of the mashup chaos of The Dark Tower film. It’s well assembled and the effects are good, but it’s hard to tell if it wants to be a horror film, a western or a dystopic sci-fi film in the post-apocalyptic vein.
Idris is very good as The Gunslinger (you can see where he’d make a good James Bond, he’s cool, tough and handsome) and young Tom Taylor is very appealing as the troubled waif who is just figuring out his skills and powers. McConaughey is a splendid actor, but doesn’t much show it in his performance here, and that’s a problem because he’s not scary. In fact, we’ve already seen his powerful auto-suggestion evil in the Netflix series Jessica Jones, and David Tennant is far scarier.
The production is solid, though there are a number of times where the digitally added background city visuals could have done with refinement, and what’s with King and abandoned theme parks anyway? Oops, not a spoiler, don’t worry.
There’s also a theme of fatherhood that I appreciated: the people who stray from goodness are those that have “forgotten the face of their father”. This theme, however, is overused to the point where it becomes a cliché and even a viewer who loves their father will be rolling their eyes and hoping it’s the last quote. But it won’t be.
I enjoyed The Dark Tower, but it won’t stand as one of the best Stephen King movie adaptations. If you’re a big fan of the series, you’ll hopefully like it — though there are a lot of changes from the book — and if not, well, there’s plenty at the multiplex from which to choose right now.